Burning Sticks

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Burning Sticks by Mark Jude Poirier

Bridgewater sits on his small cement patio under the white Tucson sun, waiting for his friend Roger to show up. He burns words into green palo verde sticks with a pen-sized disposable cauterizer—one used to seal the snipped vas deferens during a vasectomy. Two months ago, Bridgewater swiped the cauterizer from a metal cart as he waited alone in his urologist’s examining room. He had thought it was a penlight, a drug company’s promotion. He slid it into his shirt pocket before the doctor opened the door.

“You wake up hard, right?” the doctor asked, lightly rolling Bridgewater’s penis through his gloved fingers.
     “Like a teenager.”
     “How often have you had a problem?”
     “Four times,” Bridgewater said.
     The doctor sighed. “Four times is not a problem.” He clicked on his headlamp. “I’m more concerned about this,” he said, as he traced Bridgewater’s circumcision scar, a brownish, uneven line. “This is why it curves a little to the left. I can fix it.”
     “That’s okay,” Bridgewater said. He pulled up his plaid boxers.

Today’s stick words: BORED, BORING, BORINGEST. He flings the sticks over the dried wood fence one at a time, and waits for Twinkle to bark.
     No barks.
     Bridgewater stands on his toes and peers over the fence into his neighbor’s yard. Just Jersey, a happy toddler whose untamed black hair is fluffier than usual. Jersey wears only Pampers, plays in the loose dirt, slaps it so puffs of fine, brown dust bloom atomically. Bridgewater hopes none of the sticks hit the kid. “Hi,” Bridgewater says.
     “Da,” Jersey says.
     Now Bridgewater sees Twinkle. She’s sprawled on the other side of the cement porch, chewing on a boot in the sketchy shadow of a desiccated hop bush. When the dog spots Bridgewater, she perks her ears and runs over, her sinewy hind legs stretching past her snout, her tongue flapping to the side like a scarf. She skids at the fence and looks up at Bridgewater. Her eyes are frightening: eyes too human for a dog, eyes black with malice and lust like they should be darting excitedly from behind a zippered leather mask. Twinkle’s head is boxy, her paws as big as a man’s fists. Meaty dog. One hundred and some pounds of muscle.
     “I already threw them,” he tells Twinkle. “There’s one over there near the hose.” As Bridgewater points, Twinkle springs at his finger, scraping her claws on the fence, clicking her teeth, growling. Jersey burps from under clouds of dust.
     “Hold on.” Bridgewater turns around and looks for something to throw. He grabs a sun-faded paperback, which had been rotting in his backyard next to his collapsed chaise since his buddy Roger lent it to him months ago on a trip to Mexico: Spangle by Gary Jennings, 869 pages. “Good one,” Roger said. “First book I finished since junior high.” Bridgewater doesn’t read much, either, just the physics and chemistry texts from which he teaches during the school year. Bridgewater tosses Spangle over the fence.
     The dog pins the fanned-open book with one paw, and shreds it with her teeth, thrashing her head like a hooked fish. She chews clumps of pages, entire chapters, and swallows them convulsively, her eyes rolling white.
     Jersey claps his dusty, dimpled hands.

When Bridgewater first spotted Elizabeth at the faculty meeting back in the fall, he mumbled, “Thank God,” to no one. He nearly tripped over flabby Patrick Jewitt, the middle-school drama teacher, in a frantic effort to sit next to Elizabeth, who had claimed a seat in the corner near the water cooler. Elizabeth looked as if she had spent the summer in the mountains somewhere, rock climbing, kayaking, hiking. She was tan, and wore river sandals with a flowing skirt and gray T-shirt. Her long hair was the color of freshly cut oak, and she tucked it behind her ears and smiled at Bridgewater as he unfolded a metal chair next to hers. Bridgewater watched her doodle images of flowers and bicycles on the cover of the faculty handbook. The headmaster, Firman Gingerich, began his welcome speech. Bridgewater tapped Elizabeth’s handbook with his pen and wrote, You bike? next to her drawings. She wrote, I bike, but I’m trying to listen.
     Firman sucks relentlessly

     Elizabeth focused on Firman and nodded along to his speech as she wrote, He keeps looking over here.
     We could go biking later.
     We could
     Want to?
     If you stop writing on my folder
     Stop it
     I’ll stop writing on your book now

     Elizabeth placed the handbook under her chair.
     They mountain-biked that afternoon, in Starr Pass behind the new development’s sprawling golf courses and swimming pools. Elizabeth ripped up the trail, hopped rocks, plowed through loose arroyo sand. She waited for Bridgewater at every fork in the path, sometimes taking off again before he could catch his breath. “I love this,” she kept telling him.
     Bridgewater’s thighs and lungs burned as he followed her. The white sun fried his forearms, and the water in his squeeze-bottle was warm and tasted like plastic. At one point, as he pushed his bike up a steep, craggy hill, he spotted a fat horned lizard basking on a shot-up and toppled NO HUNTING sign. “Hey,” he yelled to Elizabeth, “come look at this!” But she was too far ahead. He let his bike fall, and it slid a few feet down the trail. He skinned off his sweaty gloves and snatched up the lizard. Its white underbelly felt warm and moist, rubbery. He could feel its little heart racing as it tried to wiggle from his grasp. When Bridgewater touched its spines, it squirted a thick stream of blood from its eyes, splattering Bridgewater’s seventy-dollar bike shorts. The blood smelled like fried clams.
     Later that day, when Bridgewater dropped Elizabeth off at her place, a small adobe house in Barrio Volvo, a few blocks from the University of Arizona, she said, “Thank you so much. Want to ride again tomorrow?”
     On his way home, he stopped at the drug store and bought a tube of Ben-Gay.

They rode often, even after the school year began and each had piles of papers to grade. Elizabeth taught history and English to ninth graders. Bridgewater’s physics and chemistry classes were full of over-achieving juniors and seniors. Right away, the students sensed Bridgewater and Elizabeth were a couple, which Bridgewater thought was unfair, considering he and Elizabeth had not yet had sex. For the first few weeks, he anticipated that one of his students would say something inappropriate about Elizabeth and him, so when Michael Kahn raised his hand during lab prep period and said, “You look tired. Were you and Miss Allaby up late last night?” Bridgewater didn’t flinch. He impassively said, “Take out your calculators. Quiz.”

On a muggy mid-October Saturday, Bridgewater and Elizabeth racked the bikes to Bridgewater’s Honda, loaded the tent and cooler, and drove up the twisting highway to the top of Mt. Lemmon where towering pines provided shade, and the altitude cooled the air by twenty degrees. After they finished pitching the tent in a weedy meadow, they biked over to a single-track trail that wound around snowless ski runs.
     Not even fifty yards into the ride, Bridgewater hit a stump, pitched over his handlebars, and skidded on his stomach across sharp rocks and branches into a prickly shrub. At first he didn’t move; he just lay there, twigs and dirt in his mouth, trying to figure out which of his burning, throbbing body parts hurt the most—until he heard Elizabeth. “You’re fucked,” she said, standing above him.
     Bridgewater spit out a pebble. “Shut up.”
     Elizabeth awkwardly pushed both bikes back to the campsite. Bridgewater followed, limping, moaning.
     When they reached the tent, Elizabeth said, “Strip out of those and let’s see the damage.”
     Bridgewater gingerly squeezed through the zippered flaps and kneeled on his sleeping bag in the middle of the tent. The afternoon sun pushed against the tent, lighting the interior in fiery hues of red and orange.
     Elizabeth crawled in. “I’ll do it,” she said. Bridgewater put his arms above his head. She began to peel off his shirt.
     “Ow!” he yelled from under his shirt. “Ow!”
     “Sorry.” She pulled the shirt all the way off and examined his wounds. There was a crosshatched strawberry abrasion on the left side of his abdomen, and a deeper, longer scrape cut across his chest. “You almost lost your titty on this side.”
     “I think I did something to my jaw.” He rubbed it and winced.
     “Now stand up.”
     He stood, his head pressing on the top of the tent, and Elizabeth peeled down his torn Lycra shorts, the seventy-dollar ones. Hunched in the orange light with his penis inches from Elizabeth’s face, Bridgewater twitched and sucked air through his teeth. Elizabeth gingerly plucked pebbles and splinters from the painful gouge on his hip.
     “This one’s really deep,” she said. “No stitches, but deep.”
     “Oh,” he said.
     They still hadn’t done anything but kiss—not even that passionately—but Bridgewater had figured and hoped they would have sex during this camping trip. Now he wondered if he could. He looked at his penis: not as small and retracted as it could be after such a wipeout, but not gaspingly huge, either.
     She continued to clean the hip wound, even aiming a flashlight at it. “You have a first-aid kit in the car?”
     “No,” he said, “and stop staring at my dick.”
     “Oh,” she said, “is that what that shriveled thing is?”
     “Shut up.”
     “Is it all right?” She lifted it with her index finger and let it flop down again. “Feels dead.”
     “Concentrate on the wound.”
     She didn’t, and a few moments later, his blood smeared over her thigh. A dark smutch stretched across her abdomen. With each rise of her hips, Bridgewater felt his wounds daubing her flesh, clinging and releasing.

Twinkle’s appeased, snacking on the novel, so Bridgewater decides to go inside and blast his evaporative cooler, maybe watch some TV. As he turns the pump switch to on, his buddy Roger yells from out front: “I got chimichangas!”
     Roger has been behaving this way—bringing over gifts of food and beer, acting cheery—since the night about a month ago, early in the summer, when Bridgewater confided in him about his relationship with Elizabeth.
     “She said it has nothing to do with the four times I couldn’t get it up,” Bridgewater told Roger, “but I know it does.”
     “Who’s the guy in Boston?”
     “A friend. An MIT dork.”
     “How long is she going for?”
     “Until August.”
     “Man,” Roger said, shaking his head.




Today, when Roger walks into Bridgewater’s living room, Bridgewater decides they won’t talk about Elizabeth. Roger wears his usual: a tentish Hawaiian shirt, faded Levi’s, and one-dollar flip-flops. He hands Bridgewater the bag of food from the taco stand. “You know,” he says, “as I was swimming my laps today, I figured out that I’d have to swim like six and a half miles to work off one chimichanga.”


“Maybe this daily ritual of beer and fatty food should end,” Bridgewater says, as he pokes his steaming chimichanga with a plastic fork—carne seca and guacamole.


“Tomorrow I’ll bring salad and spring water.” Roger pulls up his shirt, rubs his rounded, woolly stomach. “Beer’s bad for your problem, anyway.”


“I no longer have that problem,” Bridgewater says. “I never had a problem. The doctor said it wasn’t a problem. Shut up.”


Roger sits down next to Bridgewater and grabs the remote from the coffee table. He flips through channels until he finds a cooking show. A man with a pointed goatee flips crepes. Bridgewater can smell the chlorine from the lap pool on Roger.

“I‘ve never had this problem before,” Bridgewater told Elizabeth the first time it didn’t happen. He lifted the sheet and looked at it. Lifeless. Like a dead thing, a butcher’s scrap.


“I’ve never had this problem, either,” Elizabeth said. She sat up. “But it’s not a problem—really.”


“Maybe it’s report-card stress,” Bridgewater said, hopefully.


She blew her hair out of her face. “Maybe.”


The fourth time it didn’t happen, a few months later, Elizabeth said she was glad, and began to kiss Bridgewater’s ear.


“You’re what?” he said, turning so she could no longer kiss him.


“I’m glad.”


“You seem to like it when it works.”


“We could just lie here and kiss all afternoon. We could take a cool bath.” She leaned over to kiss him again.


Bridgewater dodged her, rolled out of bed and stepped into his boxers. “I don’t get it. It works three times in a row. It fails. It works seven more times. It fails. It works six more times, and now it’s useless again. I’m going to the doctor.”


“You’re such a baby,” Elizabeth said. She too rolled out of bed. She pulled on a Red Sox T-shirt.


“I’m only thirty-one. This shouldn’t happen.”


“I’m sick of this topic.”


“I even put my breakfast in the blender—Special K.” Bridgewater began to tuck the sheet corners under the mattress.




“Blood rushes to your stomach to help the churning process, so I figured I’d do some digesting before I ate so there’d be plenty of blood to rush to other parts.”


“Are you high?”

After swallowing the last few drops of his fifth beer and belching, Roger declares Bridgewater’s living room a farting lounge and sputters a loud one.


Bridgewater has only finished two beers. The Mexican food left a burn that creeps up his throat.


“Call me Virgil,” Roger says with a hick accent.


“Not now.” Bridgewater doesn’t feel like abiding Roger’s perverted hillbilly routine today.


“You got a problem, Purdy Mouth?”


“Your fart stinks.” Bridgewater fans a TV Guide in front of his face, breathes through his mouth.


“I seen you ’round these parts, Purdy Mouth.”


“What the hell did you eat, anyway?”


“Time for Purdy Mouth to dance. Real slow—but get faster.” Roger wrings his hands, leaves his mouth open, curls his upper lip. He stares at Bridgewater. He winks.


Bridgewater ignores Roger, and clicks off the loud TV. When Virgil, the lonely backwoods lecher, or Sergeant Surplus, the purveyor of stolen government-issued sex toys, appears, it’s time for Roger to stop drinking, it’s time to distract him. “Let’s go somewhere,” Bridgewater says. “Let’s sit in the pool for a while. It’s never crowded at this time.”


“I dint bring no swim panty, Purdy Mouth,” Roger says.


“Are you too fat now to borrow my shorts?” Bridgewater stands, begins to clear the empty bottles and Mexican food mess from the coffee table.


“Help me up, Panty Man,” Roger says, extending his hand.


Bridgewater places the bottles back on the table and grabs Roger’s callused hand. Roger jerks Bridgewater down to him and kisses him: a dental clank, abrasive whiskers, soft lips, warm, wet tongue.


Bridgewater shoves Roger and stumbles to the side before he regains his footing. He wipes his mouth across his forearm. “Get the fuck out!” he yells.


“It was a joke,” Roger says.


“Leave,” Bridgewater mumbles, unable to say anything else for fear he may vomit.

“I‘m sick of you and your obsession,” Elizabeth told Bridgewater as they sat at his kitchen table after a Cinco de Mayo street party. “And it’s too hot here already.” Each was crabby because of a parking fiasco on Fourth Avenue that resulted in Elizabeth getting a sixty-five-dollar ticket.


Bridgewater pretended to focus on the physics test he was grading. He whispered meaningless strings of numbers and then looked at Elizabeth as unemotionally as possible. “Where will you live?”


“In Somerville. With Stan.”


“That geek with the important artist eyeglasses? The one in the pictures?”


“Grow up.”


Elizabeth found a visiting grad student to sublet her little house, and left for Boston two days after final grades were turned in. As Bridgewater kissed her good-bye at the airport, as he hid himself in her hair, he couldn’t believe she’d really be gone for ten weeks, seventy days.


He told himself that he’d keep busy, that he wouldn’t have time to miss Elizabeth, but he found himself playing with the cauterizer and drinking beer with Roger more days than not.

The kiss might have just been part of the Virgil routine—and Roger’s drunk, so he shouldn’t let him drive off in his truck. He imagines Roger swerving down Campbell Avenue, getting pulled over by a cold-faced cop, being asked to recite the alphabet backwards.


Bridgewater is left with a nervous twist in his stomach—the same feeling he experienced just a few weeks ago when he witnessed an old woman topple several steps down an escalator in the nearly deserted Tucson Mall. Her blood looked purple gurgling from her lips. The paramedics, which took way too long to arrive, left her dentures right there on the tiled floor next to a fountain. Bridgewater took refuge in Banana Republic, clutched his gut while he sat hunched on a plump ottoman in the women’s shoe area. A clerk, whose hair was sculpted into a pointed ramp, eventually told Bridgewater to “move along.”


Now, as he hears Roger revving his truck outside, he feels the same sickening knot.

A few hours and several Extra Strength Rolaids later, Bridgewater paces across his patio, kicking dried mesquite beans into the dirt. The sun begins to sink towards the jagged mountains, smearing the sky with orange and purple flares. Bridgewater knows he should be moved by the splendor, but he can’t be; his nervous stomach won’t let him, and Roger’s kiss still holds an uncomfortable immediacy. He can hear Jersey on the other side of the fence again, giggling, babbling happily. He hopes Jersey was inside, that he hasn’t been playing in the dirt all day.


Bridgewater rips a large branch from the ravaged palo verde and sits down in the chaise. He begins to burn a phrase he once read on a desk in his classroom—SOME MORNINGS I CAN’T BRING MYSELF TO CHEW THROUGH THE LEATHER STRAPS—but only finishes SOME MOR when he hears strange, labored wheezing from over the fence.


Jersey’s on his hands and knees. Twinkle stands beside him, calmly licking his back. When Jersey rolls over, Bridgewater can see that his face is red, purple almost.


“Hey!” Bridgewater yells towards Jersey’s house. “Hey, your baby is choking! Hey!”


He yells again, but the only one who notices is Twinkle. She looks up from Jersey and growls at Bridgewater, lifting her thin black lip to reveal crisscrossed incisors.


Bridgewater grabs the partially-burned palo verde branch and jumps the wall. As soon as Bridgewater’s feet hit the dust next to Jersey, Twinkle clamps onto his ankle and begins to tug. He feels each of her teeth—they burn into him. He beats her with the thick branch, every strike a futile hollow thump. The dog pulls him away from the choking toddler, causes him to stumble. From his position on his butt, he rams the end of the branch into Twinkle’s forehead. She whimpers and released his leg. He feels the warmth of blood soaking through his sock as he stands and staggers over to Jersey.


The baby feels slack and warm, but still wheezes as Bridgewater scoops him up by the waist. Jersey hangs over Bridgewater’s elbow, his chubby little arms loosely dangling like a puppet’s. Twinkle’s back at Bridgewater’s ankle, the same bleeding one, pulling and gnawing. Before he falls again, Bridgewater squeezes Jersey’s abdomen. Out pops a slimy rock, the size of a peach pit. The gasping toddler squirms from his grasp and rolls off the top of the dog before thudding on the dirt.


Bridgewater falls, too, and as Twinkle drags him through the yard by his mangled ankle, he desperately grabs the palo verde branch and smacks her head again. She releases his leg after he pokes her eye, after he mashes the end of the stick a few inches into the socket, hard enough to make it bleed. Twinkle lies down and paws her eye, whimpers. Bridgewater stands on his good leg, again uses the branch to beat Twinkle.


He doesn’t hear Jersey’s wailing or Twinkle’s yelps of pain. He doesn’t hear Jersey’s mother’s screams or Jersey’s father’s what the hells.


He finally stops beating Twinkle when Jersey’s mother turns the hose on him.


With the spray in his face, the droplets making a rainbow in the last rays of sun, Bridgewater calmly says, “I saved your baby. I did. Me.”




©2002 Mark Jude Poirier and